“What is the single most important thing that I could do to lose fat?”

I am asked this question frequently by clients, students, and acquaintances. It doesn’t matter if the person has 100 pounds to lose or only ten, he or she poses the question because of a belief that, essentially, there must be a single ‘secret’ that accounts for the majority of lost bodyfat.

Such people will acknowledge that, yes, they really should pay attention to all of the diet and exercise principles that govern improved body composition, but hey, come on, isn’t there something that stands out as the most important? Isn’t there one thing that could be utilized successfully even if everything else is ignored? Is it early-morning ærobics on an empty stomach? A particular fat-burning supplement? An ultralow-carb diet?

For years I would explain repeatedly that there are no ‘secrets’. The principles work, I’d say, but there is a patience/perfection trade-off: One does not have to be perfect in following all of the principles, of course, but the farther away from perfection that one strays, the more that patience will be needed to achieve the desired outcome. This answer didn’t satisfy everyone, obviously, although at least it was truthful.
But during those years I collected enough client data to give me better insight regarding the common practices used by people who attempt to lose fat. As a result, I have been able to track particular things that mean the difference between success and failure, and now when I am asked, “What is the single most important thing that I could do to lose fat?”, I give a different answer:

Cook. Yes, in my experience the main thing that people who gradually carve off fat and keep it off have in common is not a specific macronutrient ratio, or a workout routine, or counting calories. It is food preparation. This usually strikes listeners as too simple to be helpful, but when I point out the underlying advantages in cooking they understand:

Effort. The more effort that people put forth in preparing their food, the more they generally respect it. Relying heavily on frozen ‘lite’ dinners, boxed ‘diet’ foods, bags of soy chips, take-out meals, and diet sodas instills the attitude that food is something that a company creates. This disconnection can make some people lazy about one of the most fundamental necessities of life, and that is not a good trait for successful body transformation.

Control. Those company-produced products also remove much of the control that a person needs for developing the appropriate habits for becoming and staying lean. Instead of managing portion sizes, he lets the frozen-dinner tray or the snack bag set the default serving measurement. Rather than create a custom meal with the right ratios and ingredients, he turns that responsibility over to the packaged-meal company.

Knowledge. People who don’t cook much won’t know much about what they put into their bodies. A restaurant menu description or a list of ingredients on a pre-prepared food is not the same as shopping for whole foods that meet a diet’s requirements, measuring and assembling those foods into a meal, and then cooking the meal to order. Because of this knowledge of the processes of food preparation, cooks often end up being wiser customers when they do go out for a meal.

Variety. The biggest diet-killer is boredom. Eating the same can of tuna and microwaved broccoli three or four times per day is enough to make anyone jump off the wagon. Similarly, a repetitive weekly line-up of packaged convenience meals can get old fairly quickly. Cooking does not have to be complicated or terribly time-consuming in order to be appealing: A basic repertoire of cooking methods and some herbs and spices are usually enough. The number of weekly meals that can be prepared in bulk in just two hours during a weekend, and then refrigerated or frozen for later consumption, is impressive.

Granted, this observation may seem obvious to those of us who long ago learned how to make our own meals. But a large number of people I deal with get the vast majority of their meals from drive-through fast-food places, home-delivery pizza or Chinese-food businesses, the frozen-dinner or deli sections of supermarkets, and assorted bags or boxes of convenience foods. For them, cooking could be considered a ‘secret’ weapon.